May 11, 2013

Sheep may safely graze

After enjoying the tweets from @HerdyShepherd in recent months, it was great to be in the Lake District this week and see the Herdwick sheep with their black lambs. The breed are ‘heafed’ to a particular area, which means a kind of connection and knowledge that is passed on down the generations. When foot and mouth hit the area, one of the worries for the Cumbrian hill farmers was that their herds, kept inside under cover for so long, would no longer be heafed, and when let back out would wander off and be lost. But the instinct proved stronger than feared, and this hardy breed is now back up on the hills.

“Have you had it bad up here?” we asked one farmer.

“Lost a few yowes,” he said. “Bad all ower. Wust of it is, costs sixteen quid to tek 'em down.”

It seems extraordinary to charge a farmer so much to dispose of animals lost in a winter like the one we’ve just had – particularly given that most farmers would happily burn or bury dead livestock themselves.

“I leave the odd dead lamb in field,” he admitted, “for the foxes and badgers to tek. Saves 'em tekking a live one. And they will.”

On the highest fells, lozenges of lingering white spoke of the snowfall only recently gone, and the becks were running silver down the slopes. In the farm across the valley from our holiday cottage the ewes got into the stackyard one afternoon and began to eat a vast pile of fodder turnips. The farmer sent his dogs to drive them out, but we watched as, after they had gone, two grey rabbits crept in to continue their work.

From the mossy oak by the farm track, not yet in leaf, the jackdaws laughed.

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